Regularly practicing yoga has had a profound effect on my life, sometimes in ways I would never have imagined. Experiencing these benefits first hand has inspired me to explore the scientific explanations for the reasons why. I do this through my own research, but also by practicing and training with teachers who are on top of the latest scientific developments in the yoga world and integrate the findings into their classes. That is one of the reasons why I am always happy when I can join a class of Reni Bickel when she passes through Zurich (see bio at end of interview). She is a wonderful, authentic and creative teacher, who also shares this interest in yoga and science. I though you may also appreciate her perspectives, so I sat down with the lovely Reni to chat about yoga and science – and how western science is starting to uncover what eastern philosophy has suggested for a long time.
Reni, from your perspective, what are some of the interesting things modern science is telling us so far about the benefits of yoga – physically, mentally and emotionally?
On a physical level, modern science has proven that intelligent yoga practice strengthens the body in a balanced way. There is a wide range of yoga asana which can be used to heal our physical structure. Recent research about the soft connective tissue (fascia) shows the connection between the body, the mind and the storage of emotions- fascia that is properly stretched can change not only habitual body posture, but also release psychological trauma. The mind-body connection is evident in yoga. The body influences the mind and vice versa. Another example is what we call “active relaxation” – by doing a restorative pose we activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This results in muscle relaxation, our heart beat slows down and we stop releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. The so called “rest and digest-mode” has an immediate effect on our emotional and mental state and we become calm. The practice can also start at the level of the mind and influence the body. For example, when we manage to enter a meditative state, the brain emits alpha waves and releases neurotransmitters like serotonin. This hormone increases the sense of well-being and on the other hand influences important functions like the immune system. The effects of yoga practice are wide and many can be experienced immediately. Yoga can also change our behavior in the long term – recent findings about creating new neuronal pathways explain how this happens on the level of the brain.
How do you think new scientific findings will influence the future direction of yoga? And related to that, how do you think will we combine ancient wisdom and modern science moving forward?
I believe that new findings in modern science will continue to prove yoga methods to be beneficial and this will help give them more official recognition. Consequently, yoga might reach more people and help shift global consciousness towards greater connection and peace. I am sure that old yogic methods will be refined thanks to newest scientific research. In fact, this process is already happening: western yoga asana is known to be more accurate and effective than most of the traditional Indian practices, for example. On the other hand, yoga and other Eastern traditions like TCM or the Buddhist concept of mindfulness have a growing influence on the western health and lifestyle model. The unification of old wisdom and modern science, east and west, will hopefully lead to greater wholeness in our seemingly fractured world. During his last visit to Zurich Dalai Lama said that 90% of the awakening process is based on studying and understanding, and that faith is only a little part of the practice. He underlined the importance of science and encouraged us to actively study and try to understand things. Then the more knowledge we have the less we act out of ignorance, and are able to find our true essence.
Do you think increased research into yoga can help it become a part of conventional western medicine treatment/prevention?
Yes, definitely. This is already happening and I expect it will become stronger over the next years. The new generation has a different world view – many young people today are very well educated about and open-minded for alternative treatment methods and spirituality. Nowadays in our globalized world, everything is inter-connected and new findings spread at an incredibly fast speed. As global networking proceeds, paradigms can change more easily and yoga will find its way into western preventive medicine. We just have to remember that yoga is not a therapy or medicine itself, although it can be applied for healing, it is much bigger than that.
What do you think are the main messages people practicing yoga should know about yoga and science?
The wonderful thing about scientists (also traditional scientists) is that they curiously tap into the unknown, while keeping a flexible mind always ready to deconstruct ideas and accept new answers. The same applies for yogis: on our journey inward we go profound into the dark, we deconstruct patterns, then unify all parts again to find our true essence. The goal of both yoga and modern science, is to elucidate the truth or find what is true. Maybe that’s is the important connection, and there is no need to fit the word “yoga” into the modern concept of “science” at all. Because they already go hand in hand. When I learned more about yoga philosophy in my first teacher training, I understood that yoga is not just a state of being, or way of living, it also is a science. It offers methods and explanations including both the material and spiritual aspects of our human life. Scientific concepts are always to be understood on a mental level. The beauty of yoga is that it is conceptual and practical at the time. It offers us the possibility to understand and to experience.
Reni Bickel is an experienced yoga teacher (RYT500) and medical therapist currently based in New York City. Born and raised in Switzerland, she adventured at an early age to discover the world, finding immense joy in exploring and understanding different cultures. Reni came to yoga as a surfer searching for balance and ease – and found the ideal tool to promote well-being on all levels through mind-body awareness. She brings simplicity and lightness into yoga practice, encouraging her students to flow freely yet focusing on intelligent alignment, breath and optimal energy flow. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Sports Science, a Master of Science in Human Movement and is a qualified Medical Training Therapist.
For more on the topic of the Science of Yoga, check out this short film produced by Uplift: